Travels in India, 2001: (1) Delhi, part one.

The cabbie who accosted me announced that he was ‘very experienced. I driving 10 years.’ Which was just as well because I spent most of the journey with my mouth hanging open in disbelief. Was I on my way from the airport to my hotel, or had we taken a wrong turning and were now making our way through the inner suburbs of insanity? Cars were buzzing around us as furiously as if we had stolen honey from the hive. An ancient bus, which was so far beyond ‘rusty’ as to have become just ‘rust’, was jinking between lanes like a rugby three-quarter, with young men hanging on to its external surfaces like human earrings. What if it stopped suddenly? What if the passengers lost their grip or were swung out and, then, on the way back, came crashing through its sides like a troupe of sub-continental Arnold Schwarzennegers? The whole contraption would disintegrate into a heap of jagged iron filings, into which we would, unhappily, plough. It didn’t bear thinking about. I didn’t. I was too busy worrying about terminal carbon monoxide poisoning. Had nobody heard of catalytic converters, or at the very least engines that burnt fuel rather than emit it in the form of noxious gas? This was traffic beyond the imagining of western Europeans. When it wasn’t clouds of exhaust fumes, it was the not-stop hooting.  Either Delhi drivers were deaf, or they had expired from too much CO and were slumped, asphyxiated, over their car horns. And why, I couldn’t help wondering, didn’t my driver use the brake? Did he have a brake? Did he know where it was? I reached for my seat belt (how naïve can you get?) and cowered in the back seat gibbering quietly as we swerved past an ox-cart that had lumbered out of a side street and cut in front of a family of four on a scooter. Dad hit the brakes. Mum, who was sitting side-saddle carrying a baby in her arms, wobbled. And do you know what? They didn’t mouth obscene imprecations at us. They didn’t flick v-signs. They didn’t even look round. They took this narrowest of escapes with complete calm and composure – which was more than could be said for myself.

The road narrowed as we reached Old Delhi, and the traffic congealed. Nothing I had read or heard about India had prepared me for this. I have to say I was shocked. I had expected a slightly decayed grandeur. Moghul temples frayed at the edges. Elegant edifices in need of a lick of paint. I hadn’t expected a war zone. The buildings looked as if the Luftwaffe had had a good night fifty years ago and nobody had bothered with repairs since. Around this bombsite, a destitute crowd the size of Manchester drifted past the car windows. For some reason, the business of the city seemed exclusively given over to selling tyres, probably retreads. Probably retreads of retreads. If there were other ‘shops’, and I suppose there must have been, I didn’t notice them. And woven through this human tapestry were cows, which grazed contentedly on mounds of abandoned litter, meandered down the street or simply slept, reassured by the certain knowledge that even if they happened to become cataleptic while ruminating between the bumpers of rush-hour traffic, no harm would come to them. Cows in India are sacred. Any Hindu who accidentally kills one has to make a pilgrimage to the Ganges.

We made it to the Hotel. Check-in took 45 minutes, but I didn’t mind a bit. I was still alive. Small mercies like this tend to put a spring in my step. I felt perky and ready to see the sights. I splashed water on my face, taking great care not to swallow a drop, bounced out of the hotel and took a cab down to the nearest monument: the Red Fort. The taxi was an Ambassador, the old Morris Oxford, the sort of vehicle that was obsolete in Britain shortly after the last war. The engine went nicely enough, but I realised as soon as I sat down that the upholstery was going to be a problem. It was entirely without backbone. If I sat upright, the back seat stayed in place but, as I leant against it, it flattened out, like a recliner. Every time we hit a bump, I was thrown against the back seat – which gave way beneath me and had me stretched out staring up at the roof. It was amusing the first time. ‘Whoops, how funny, my seat has collapsed, ha ha.’ However, it was the kind of joke that became less uproarious with every crater – and Old Delhi roads are full of them – so that after a while I wasn’t laughing at all. I decided the best way was to stretch myself out and be carried to the Red Fort as if on one of those racing toboggans, where you lie on your back, and try to look at the world through your knees. In this Maharajal position, I was just about able to see out of the window, skyward.

The Red Fort was massive, red (like boiled lobster), imposing and closed for the night. I wondered around the outside for half an hour or so, surprised, impressed and amazed at how huge it was. Shah Jehan, the last but one of the Great Moghuls (more later), built this enormous pile in 1648. Inside he kept his considerable harem and indulged in sexual excesses on a scale that would take a fevered imagination even to dream about. In his spare moments, he also sat on the most splendid treasure of all, the Peacock throne, which was so over the top that the world was said to have run short of gold in building it. No doubt about it, Shah Jehan cast a mighty shadow – which was why the Red Fort had to be enormous.  You couldn’t have a king ‘mightier than England’s monarch, richer than China’s, stronger than Persia’s’ living in a semi-detached. You had to have something which made people take one look and say, ‘Cor blimey, the geezer who lives here has a bob or two’ – which were, more or less, the words that escaped involuntarily from my lips. I’d have liked to have gone in and nosed about and gawped, but it was getting late and, as I said, the fort was shut. Not that I would have seen the Peacock throne in any event. The Persians nicked it when they sacked Delhi in 1738, and took enough loot away with them to remit all taxes in Persia for three years! That, in a nutshell, was the sort of thing that kept happening to India. Invading armies would peek over the border and think to themselves, ‘I spy rich pickings’, and down they would swoop for a spot of pillage. It’s what comes of being richer than your neighbours. Sooner or later, every Tom, Dick and Harry with a half-decent army decides it’s time to have a go.

Anyway, I was strolling around looking at those vast walls positively dripping with history, and vaguely wondering what to do next, when a young, thin, moustachioed Indian lad invited me to step aboard his bicycle rickshaw and be pedalled across an enormous junction, onto a major thoroughfare called Chandi Chowk, and around the old market lanes nearby.  This was about the hundredth such proposition I’d received in the last fifteen minutes, but what the hell. Off we started, into a torrent of oncoming traffic. Now a bicycle rickshaw is like a pony and trap without the pony. It’s a very outdoors experience. I hadn’t fully appreciated, until that moment, that sitting in nothing more than a waist-high sheet of the thinnest metal ever milled while surrounded by substantial vehicles which didn’t look as if they regarded you as an object worth going out of their way to avoid, was a bit like slicing a baguette with no clothes on. Your imagination gets to work and comes up with plenty of possibilities you’d rather not dwell on. I started to chatter inanely – it’s a nervous reaction – but, from these random scatterings of verbiage, Shibu, the young cyclist, and I managed to progress to conversation. We talked about his bicycle. It looked shiny and new. Compared to the others on the road, this was not saying a great deal, but it was definitely a cut above. Shibu was proud of it. It cost him 50 rupees (70p) a day to rent, and anything he made over and above that was his. A new rickshaw, I discovered, cost 4000 rupees (under £60), a distant fortune for the rickshaw drivers. I did the sums. 50 rupees a day for the rickshaw owner. Say 300 days a year. That’s 15,000 rupees a year for a layout of 4000. The capitalist gets all his money back in three months!  It’s the same the whole world over. It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure, and the poor wot spends a lifetime pedalling overweight foreigners for subsistence wages.

The Chandi Chowk (built, as it happens, by Jahanara, the lascivious but devoted daughter of Shah Jehan) was magical. This was November and the time of Divali, the festival of lights. The traffic was at a standstill. The chowk was choked: choc-a-bloc, like the streets outside Murrayfield five minutes after a victorious home international (not that that happens often). It was party time. The people were out celebrating and we were tugged along by the happy current. I sat back in the warm evening air, watching Shibu weave between the milling thousands taking their gentle pleasures, and thinking that I had come a long way in the last 24 hours. We drifted past a bicycle whose back wheel had collapsed under the weight of an enormous sack of grain, and turned off into an indoor warren of narrow lanes, which were just about wide enough for one rickshaw and two Indians, provided the Indians hadn’t had any lunch (which, by the look of them, they hadn’t) and were breathing in. Cut into the sides, were arched openings stuffed with people sleeping and selling.  They were no doubt aching with poverty, but all I can say is that they didn’t look unhappy. In fact they looked a good deal happier than, let’s say, 90per cent of the people on the London Underground or just about everybody in Paris. And considering that we were in back alleys of the type that any self-respecting Victorian footpad would have considered home, I never felt in the slightest danger.

Shibu wanted to show me a temple. He parked the rickshaw by abandoning it where it stood, unlocked. We took off our shoes, climbed some steep steps and were guided around by a boy at the door. Twenty minutes later we came back. Nobody had stolen my shoes. Nobody had stolen Shibu’s bicycle. This was impressive. Where else in the world, apart from Switzerland (which doesn’t count), can a man leave valuable possessions – in Shibu’s case, his entire source of income – lying unguarded in the street in the sure and certain knowledge that, when he returned, it would still be there?

Shibu cycled me back to the Fort. Who should be waiting for me there, like an expectant father, but the taxi driver who had brought me. I can’t think what had possessed me, unless I’d struck my head harder than I remembered on the way here, but apparently I’d asked him to hang on. The big vein in my neck started to throb in anticipation. There was nothing for it but to step aboard, lie back like Count Dracula in his coffin, and be tobogganed back to the hotel. But at least it was cheap. For 30 rupees (45p), a taxi will wait an hour. For 100 rupees, he’ll sit it out until the last trumpet. Can’t grumble at that.

By this time, and it was now late, Morpheus was lying heavy on my lids. Bed beckoned, and, as I lost consciousness somewhere in the airspace above my sheets, my last recollection was that, should I make it through until morning, I would have negotiated Act 1, Scene 1 of the Indian adventure. That would be a start.

… to be continued

© Michael Tobert